Reading notes (2021, week 22): On better metaphors, employers ruling our lives, the math on social security, and efficiency being overrated

Data: we need a better metaphor

Metaphors shape the way we think about things.

[current] metaphors imagine public data as a huge, passive, untapped resources – lakes of stuff that only has value when it is extracted and processed. But this framing completely removes the individual agency that created the stuff in the first place. Oil is formed by millions of years of compression and chemical transformation of algae and tiny marine animals (…). Data is created in real time, as we click and swipe around the internet. The metaphor might work in an economic sense, but it fails to describe what data is as a material. It’s not oil, it’s people.

The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil – as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago – it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.

Needed:  a better metaphor for data

We need metaphors for data that capture the agency and visceral emotions that our personal data can generate. Metaphors that link it directly into our lives and relationships, that help us recognise that this is us – we’re the ones being traded and sold and stored and analysed and processed. Perhaps then we’d understand how we can handle this data in a more responsible way.

A metaphor that puts our personal experience at the forefront will help us find out where to draw lines in how our lives are stored and processed, and to understand that the lines will need to be different for different people. (…) Maybe we should be very explicit, and refer to data as our lives. Imagine if a service had to ask you permission to ‘track your life’ or ‘share information about your life with other providers’. Already that feels grittier, more visceral, than just ‘data’.

We urgently need to come up with metaphors like this, that bring the discussion over data down from the skies above us and locate it in the minutiae of our everyday lives. Because that, after all, is what this data actually is.

source:  Matt Locke, Data isn’t oil, so what is it? (accessed 210601), via John Naughton

How employers rule our lives

from a Joshua Rohman book review:

In 2011, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, published an exposé about the working conditions at a local Amazon warehouse. That summer, temperatures inside the warehouse had risen above a hundred degrees; managers, citing concerns about theft, had refused to open the doors for ventilation, instead stationing ambulances outside so that employees could be hospitalized if they collapsed. Job applicants, desperate for work, lined up to replace the fallen.

Stories like this are surprisingly common, Elizabeth Anderson writes, in “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It)”; in fact, they characterize life for millions of Americans. Anderson reports that audits by the Department of Labor have found “sweatshop-like conditions” in ninety-three per cent of the garment factories in Southern California. In many poultry plants, employees are denied bathroom breaks and must wear adult diapers. Forty-one per cent of workers have unpredictable schedules, with employers summoning and dismissing them at will; ninety per cent of restaurant workers say that they have been sexually harassed; millions of employees are subject to drug screening without cause. According to some studies of wage theft, as much as fifty billion dollars is stolen from workers every year by employers who simply refuse to pay.

After the Morning Call article, Amazon spent fifty-two million dollars to install air-conditioning in its warehouses, but, strictly speaking, nothing about that overheated warehouse (or those hyper-efficient poultry plants) is illegal. In general, workers are seen as consenting adults who have entered into mutually satisfying agreements with their employers. Because employees can quit at any time, bosses are free to treat them more or less however they want.

In “Private Government,” Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.”

A usual response to this is that employees are free to walk away from a job, a boss, or a company they don’t like. Well, they certainly can… but not without putting their livelihood in jeopardy. More so if, as is increasingly the case,  one has signed a non-compete agreement.

for many workers, there is nowhere to emigrate to. Especially at the lower end of the income scale, bad working conditions are so pervasive that switching jobs just means trading one bad boss for another.

The private-public distinction is thus:

whether you’re a C.E.O., a mayor, or the head of a campus commune, there are two ways of being in charge. If you exercise “public government,” you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield “private government,” the rules are not up for debate.

In public government, decision-making is everybody’s business—the government “belongs” to everyone, like a public park. In private government, it belongs to the governor, as his or her private possession. When parents say that their rules exist “because I say so,” they are exercising private government over their children. By contrast, our democracy is a public government, in which citizens have a say over the content of their laws.

Giving “a voice,” through a system of workers’ councils, to allow them to elect representatives who participate in executive decision-making has been tried, in Germany and elsewhere, and it has sometimes made workplaces better. However, in the Anglo-American world corporations are run privately.The reviewer concludes:

One reason we don’t talk about it is that we don’t want to acknowledge how much the rhetoric of American freedom outruns the constraints of private government. Corporate power was always going to win out over libertarian fantasy. This defeat is hard to admit.

You do the math

Two separate but related items on the same day:

The number of people expecting to work beyond age 67 fell to a record low of 32.9% last month, according to a New York Federal Reserve survey. And about 2.7 million workers age 55 and older plan to apply early for Social Security benefits — almost twice as many as the 1.4 million people in the same age group who anticipate working longer, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey.

The number of babies born in America last year was the lowest in more than four decades, according to federal figures released Wednesday that show a continuing U.S. fertility slump. U.S. women had about 3.61 million babies in 2020, down 4% from the prior year, provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics shows. The total fertility rate—a snapshot of the average number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime—fell to 1.64. That was the lowest rate on record since the government began tracking it in the 1930s, and likely before that when families were larger, said report co-author Brady Hamilton. Total births were the lowest since 1979. (WSJ)

The former’s social security payments is financed by taxes paid by the latter. You do the math.

Efficiency is overrated

There is no time wasted. You own it. It’s yours. Do with it as you please… unless you sold it to someone else.

Days full of online meetings. No commute time. Productivity has skyrocketed. There are no wasted moments waiting for the tube, queuing in the coffee shop, waiting for the lift.

I miss those little moments. Standing on the platform waiting for the train. Sitting on the Circle Line, daydreaming. Walking through the streets, looking around.

Yes, these moments are non-billable and non-fillable.

But whilst they might be ‘dead’ time to some, they are ‘alive’ time to me. When I can switch off, get creatively energised, let my mind wander. Talk to a stranger, notice something I hadn’t seen before, go down a cognitive rabbit hole. (Ian Sanders)